What a First Draft REALLY Looks Like

New writers seem to be divided into two camps when it comes to their first drafts. 

The first camp is comprised of those who are intent on making their first drafts perfect. They obsess during the initial writing process about the way that their ideas flow. They censor and edit themselves as they write, and often feel stuck when it comes to creating new material. More, they feel defeated when what they've created isn't up to their exacting standards, and needs to be revised.

The second camp is made up of those who get attached to their writing. They think that because they wrote their content a certain way the first time, said content is sacrosanct and shouldn't be changed. This hampers them in their revisions because it prevents objectivity.   

Neither camp is "bad," or even wrong. Both are full of writers who are doing their best to create books of which they can be proud. But both sides labor under a fundamental and potentially harmful misconception: that a first draft is (or should be) only a quick proofread away from a finished piece of writing. 

Many writers, including some of history's greatest, have expressed their opinions on first drafts in no uncertain terms. Perhaps the most well-known quote comes from Ernest Hemingway, who famously said,

"The first draft of anything is shit." 

(Harsh, I know. But then, the master wasn't exactly known for pulling his punches.) 

Here are a few more quotes from well-known authors on this subject. 

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.” ― Michael Lee

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."― Mark Twain.

And finally, from Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus: "The bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious, messy efforts; that's what gets me the best material."

And that pretty much sums it up. Your first draft is, and should be, a blind, unconscious, messy effort to get everything you know about your book out of your head and onto the page. The "blind" part can be greatly alleviated by a solid outline, but the results of your first writing efforts will always be messy, especially if you're a new writer. It's simply part of the creation process. 

Like a beautiful ceramic pot, your book will go through several stages of evolution. Your first draft is akin to taking the raw clay (and your plan of action for shaping it) and getting it on the wheel. By the time you're done with this stage, you have something resembling a pot, sure—but it's still raw. It hasn't been shaped delicately, using specific tools, into its final form. It hasn't been hardened, or painted, or glazed.

With so much left to do, you wouldn't take that pot off the wheel, put it in someone's hands, and say, "Here's the pot I made for you!" Such an object wouldn't do its job as a pot! It would crumble, or collapse, or smear mud all over the shelf―and it certainly wouldn't be an accurate showcase of your abilities as a potter.

No, your pot, quite literally, needs to go through several more stages of the creation process, including the heat of the kiln fire, in order to be perfected. Your book will likewise go though the metaphorical fire of revision before you put it in the hands of your readers. 

“To write is human, to edit is divine.” ― Stephen King

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The first step to solving the first draft conundrum is to stop treating your initial forays into your book (or article, or blog) as if they were the end-all, be-all of your writing process. Instead, treat them as exploratory missions.

Think of your first draft as your first walk down an unknown street in a new town, or your first trip to a new and foreign land. You have a map (your outline and writing plan), but you haven't been here before, and don't fully know what to expect. You're getting the lay of the land, challenging your preconceptions, and making new discoveries. It's all part of the adventure. 

Once you know what you're working with, you can strategically and objectively analyze what's in front of you. You can identify landmarks on your map. You can see the forest (your book) as a whole, instead of looking at individual trees. You can see where improvements are warranted, and where inspiration struck you like lightning from the sky. 

Then (to return to our initial metaphor), you can set about transforming your first impressions―the raw clay of your pot―into something that holds its shape, serves its purpose, and fulfills its greatest potential. 

So please, writers, stop pressuring yourselves to write a perfect first draft! Instead, recognize it as one step in a multi-layered process, a means to an end. I promise, when you remove the stress of creating a flawless first draft, your writing will expand and flow in ways you could never have imagined. 

And now, I'll leave you with these inspiring words from Jane Smiley. 

“Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It's perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.”

Let's get writing, friends! Let those messy, wonderful, perfect first drafts flow―and then, dive into your revisions with joy! 



Bryna René Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing, the chief editor for Inspired Living Publishing, and the best-selling author of The Art of Inspiration: An Editor's Guide to Writing Powerful, Effective Inspirational and Personal Development Books. In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband, Matthew, and their little Moonbeam, Áine.